Almost everyone is operating from a fixed, limited way of being. I hesitate to say everyone, but I do think it’s everyone at varying degrees of flexibility, mobility, freedom.
One of the most fundamental limitations is how we identify ourselves, what we identify with. What do we consider “me”, “I”, “mine”? Do I identify with my body? My feelings? My possessions? My job? My family? My Facebook friend count? My followers? Likes? Comments? Amount of money? Income? Sexual partners? Body weight?
We can tell each other, “don’t take it personally.” What does that mean? Personally as in don’t identify with it. It’s not really about you. Yet, all of us often take things personally when it’s not useful or even true.
Being able to not identify with these symbols, these abstractions helps us be more free, be more happy, be more effective.
After all, our bodies will decay and die despite what the technological transhumanists say. Our careers jobs are to a large degree not solely dependent on our selves. Basing our identity and self worth off of our income, our weight, our body is just a recipe for eventual misery.
To be sure, this does not mean that we neglect or abuse or be ignorant about these things. These bodies do exist. Money does have an impact. But, they don’t need to define our identity or self-worth. We take care of these things but we don’t base our entire lives on them. And the truth is for most of us, we do live our lives and make our decisions on minimizing the potential danger to one of these symbols or trying to maximize them. For example, choosing to move cross country for a job opportunity while sacrificing perhaps one’s spiritual life, friends, and family (valuing money). Or not doing new things that would be good because we’re afraid of being embarrassed (valuing fame, status, reputation, social identity).
One of the useful things about being at the monastery is that to some degree, this identity as a “monastic” helps empower me to do the right thing. I don’t have to worry about losing my “job” because I talk about global warming or really these blog posts. There was a way that I censored myself online at my old job because I was worried about our customers potentially reading my stuff.
Another major limitation is not being able to control and direct our attention. I hark on this point often. I notice it daily in my life too. Between constant music streaming, on-demand entertainment, advertising, social media, and everything else, it’s incredibly challenging to train and hold attention. To be in a state of not-knowing or physically uncomfortable. To just be bored.
This video from CGP Grey from last year talks about “quitting (parts of) the internet”.
I’ve previously talked about hacking my Facebook (How to Effectively Use Facebook) such that I almost never ever read anyone else’s posts. I can’t see any of the number of likes. I just share what I want and that’s it.
Meditation and mindfulness is all about training attention. Being able to focus on what we want. About being able to trust and be in any experience.
To jump back to a previous book I mentioned before: Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work . He talks a lot about ecstasis technologies and altered states. About how powerful and impactful democratizing these technologies to access altered states would be in the world and the existing groups doing it. (Of course, the author’s company’s business model is just exploring and providing such experiences).
But what is ecstasis?
Ecstasis – act of stepping beyond oneself, rapture, ecstasy, group flow, peak state, individuals merging into group intelligence.
For most of my peers, I imagine the most obvious source of ecstasis is drug use. However, there are a number of ways to explore going beyond one’s usual self. The obvious one for me that I aspire to master is meditation.
One interesting tidbit is that a lot of “rational”, educated people often worry on retreats about being brainwashed or losing themselves through meditation. It can sometimes feel like I’m dying in this weird, hard to define way that’s not really mental or physical. Yet, it feels viscerally uncomfortable in a non-intense, intense way. Just that last paragraph demonstrates how hard it is to put into words and unusual it is.
I remember during my first year talking to Soryu how I don’t trust the Great Unknown, don’t trust my ego dying. Won’t the crowds of humanity just murder the truth-teller like they did with Jesus? Of course, a lot of that is my childhood baggage but it’s still there. This general fear of civilized social lies vs the real truth (or perhaps “realer truths”).
I really like the book talks about Going Beyond the Pale in a way that honors both the safety and usefulness of the civilized social boundaries as well as going beyond them:
In 1172, the English invaded Ireland, planted their flag, and built a great big fence. That barrier, known as the English Pale — from pale, meaning a stake or picket – defined the world for those invaders. Within their pale, all was safe, true, and good, a civilized land ruled by English law and institutions.
Beyond the pale, on the other hand, lay bad news. That’s where mayhem, murder, and madness resided. Most who ventured beyond it were never heard from again. And the few who did manage to return weren’t always welcomed with open arms. They were no longer trustworthy; they might have seen too much.
…the experiences….stand outside the perimeter fence of polite society. Instead of hearing stories about the possibilities of altered states, we’re treated to cautionary tales. Stories of hubris and excess….
…This is no idle warning. History is littered with tales of ecstatic explorations gone wrong. Consider the 1960s, Ken Kesey snuck LSD out of a Stanford research lab and all manner of tye-dyed hell broke loose. The same thing happened with the sexual revolution of the 1970s. What began as a quest for personal liberation ended up spiking rates of marital dissatisfaction and divorce. And 1990’s rave culture too, which blended synthetic drugs with electronic music, collapsed under a series of tightening legal restrictions, ER visits, and tabloid fodder.
…nearly every time we light out into this terrain, somebody gets lost. By definition, ecstasis makes for tricky navigation. The term means out of our heads and “out” isn’t always pleasant. These states can be destabilizing. It’s why psychologists use terms like “ego death” to describe the experiences…”this experience of ego-death seems to entail an instant merciless destruction of all previous reference points in the life of an individual.”
…let’s give the gatekeepers their due. What lies beyond the pale isn’t always safe and secure. Outside the state-sanctioned consciousness, there are, to be sure, peaks of profound insight and inspiration. But there are also the swamps of addiction, superstition, and groupthink, where the unprepared can get stuck.
For this reason, most people don’t venture outside alone. We look for others who have gone this way before us; we look for guidance and for leadership. But…not everyone who leads us beyond that fence has our best intentions at heart.
So, people’s misgivings about surrendering themselves to experience something different is legitimate in a lot of ways. There’s a history of abusive teachers, organizations, and such. It’s important to know that the intention of the leader or group is not fixated on some philosophical idea (communism, capitalism, etc) nor is it for self-aggrandizement. To be honest, that’s a really high bar. Most people don’t reach it.
What’s special about a legitimate mystical or spiritual group is that the first and foremost value is helping protect life, in liberating people from imprisonment. Not on their own institutional/personal survival or thriving.
And, it’s important, to point out that the existing societal institutions, existing ways of life, that you and me are doing right now, are broken. Are not only broken but complicit in continually destroying the world and everyone on it. All of the major problems today are essentially man-made from climate change, nuclear war, racism, poverty, starvation, and so on. That’s incredible.
People can sometimes worry that the monastery is a “cult”. Particularly parents. But, the truth is that everyone believes something, worships something, is a part of a cult of something. The question is whether or not you are conscious of it? And whether that cult, whether those beliefs are consciously chosen, intentionally structured or are they operating off of blind instinct or pre-existing systems of oppression?
Going Beyond the Pale has its dangers. Find trustworthy partners and a trustworthy place to go. But, staying within the Pale is also dangerous and for sure will not lead to peace, happiness, or meaning given the present conditions.